‘I Love Lucy’: Desi Arnaz Wouldn’t Hire This Actor Until They Made a No-Alcohol Agreement

Classic 1950s comedy I Love Lucy was a comic feast. Starring Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley, the show is one of television’s most successful – and funniest – comedies.

What wasn’t so funny was Arnaz’s reluctance to hire one of the show’s actors due to their problem with alcohol. The Cuban actor and producer on the series agreed to their joining the cast only if they consented to a few conditions.

In a scene from the ‘Job Switching’ episode of 'I Love Lucy,' Lucille Ball reads a newspaper while co-star and husband Desi Arnaz looks on, 1952
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in a scene from ‘I Love Lucy,’ 1952 | CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

The most important part of ‘I Love Lucy,’ according to its producer

I Love Lucy‘s producer Jess Oppenheimer and his son Gregg wrote in their memoir of classic show I Love Lucy: The Untold Story that, not surprisingly, the special sauce behind the show was Ball herself.

“The most important piece of magic was Lucy herself,” Oppenheimer wrote. “Her radiant talent, her wonderful combination of beauty and clown, her sure touch for the human quality, which found recognition in every segment of the viewing audience, were the sparks that gave life to the entire series. She was truly one of a kind, and I thanked my lucky stars that our paths had crossed when they did.”

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in a scene from 'I Love Lucy', 1951
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in a scene from ‘I Love Lucy’, 1951 | CBS/Getty Images

William Frawley was the perfect Fred Mertz

In their 1999 book Meet the Mertzes: The Life Stories of I Love Lucy’s Other Couple, authors Audrey E. Kupferberg and Rob Edelman noted that there was no magical meeting between Frawley, Ball, and Arnaz. In fact, Frawley sought the couple out to be considered for the role. Unable to get decent work for several years, the actor was hoping he might get hired for the new television show.

“Having heard about I Love Lucy, Frawley, then in his mid-60s, called to inquire about playing Fred Mertz. In his autobiography, published in 1976, Arnaz wrote, ‘I got a call from William Frawley,’ and added, ‘After I hung up I kept seeing his puss and remembering how good he was at playing the kind of gruff character he usually played. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced he was Fred Mertz.'”

Fred Mertz actor William Frawley poses for a photo
Fred Mertz actor William Frawley | Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

RELATED: Which ‘I Love Lucy’ Actor Also Was Part of ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ Cast?

Arnaz hired Frawley under strict conditions

Because of Frawley’s reputation as a hard drinker, CBS and its advertiser, Philip Morris, were not as keen as Arnaz to bring “stocky, bald, cigar-chomping Frawley” on to the show.

The future Fred Mertz actor himself was furious at being characterized in this negative light.

“Well, those bastards, those sonsab*tches,” Frawley said at the time. “They’re always saying that about me. How the hell do they know, those bastards?” 

The cast of 'I Love Lucy' on their way to California
The cast of ‘I Love Lucy’ | CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

“Despite his reputation, Ball and Arnaz came to like the idea of Frawley playing Fred Mertz and were determined to sign him,” Frawley’s biographers wrote. “In another oft-repeated anecdote, Arnaz and Frawley met at Nickodell’s, a Melrose Avenue restaurant-bar in Hollywood near Paramount Pictures and Desilu that was one of Frawley’s favorite watering holes.”

Arnaz laid the law down for Frawley in their meeting: “If the actor were to miss three workdays for anything but a legitimate reason, he would be permanently written out of the show,” Kupferberg and Edelman said. “In baseball lingo, which sports fanatic Frawley could readily understand, it meant three strikes and he was out, with no appeals to a higher authority. Frawley agreed and I Love Lucy had its Fred Mertz.”